Tuesday, March 22, 2011
NFC West teams back kickoff changes
By Mike Sando
NEW ORLEANS -- Two teams with dynamic kickoff returners voted against an NFL rules proposal that could limit returns.
NFC West teams were not among them even though Seattle's Leon Washington and Arizona's LaRod Stephens-Howling could suffer from its passage.
In the end, the NFL opted for a watered-down version of the original proposal by a 26-6 vote at the NFL owners meeting Tuesday. Teams will kick off from their own 35-yard line instead of from the 30. Coverage teams will line up no closer than five yards behind the restraining line before kickoff.
The changes appear likely to produce more touchbacks and less violent collisions during returns, removing from the game numerous chances for injuries. Critics complained that too many restrictions could eliminate an important part of the game.
"Just because it gets kicked into the end zone doesn't mean you can't bring it out," St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "That might be an exciting play, when somebody decides three yards deep (to bring it out).
"If you had a kicker that could drop it on the 1, then your guys are five yards closer, maybe you get them inside the 10. I think it would bring in some strategy. But again, the key was the safety."
Owners cast aside two other changes. One would have given teams possession at the 25 instead of the 20 on touchbacks. Another would have eliminated two-man wedge blocks.
Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Oakland, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago voted against the compromise measure. The Bears' Devin Hester and the Browns' Josh Cribbs have ranked among the NFL's top returners over the years, perhaps explaining their teams' opposition.
Washington and Stephens-Howling have been highly productive, too, but their teams favored the compromise proposal in the name of player safety.
"You gotta have an eye toward player safety," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "What this is doing is trying to reduce the number of times that you are exposing players to those injuries without taking away an exciting component of the football game."
Baltimore's John Harbaugh, the only NFL head coach whose background was primarily as a special-teams coach, expects some new strategizing.
"Cover teams may try to pin people," Harbaugh said. "That is why they went from the 25 to the 20 with the touchback, so you have a little more incentive for a touchback. If the ball is coming out to the 25, you might be more willing to take your chances because you are covering from the 35 and with a high-hangtime kick, that is very coverable.
"I still think teams will try that at times, but you are probably pretty likely to try for a touchback if it is going to come back to the 20."